My second Big Day could not be simpler. I will make a movie.
Not a scripted movie with commercial aspirations. No, just what we used to call, back in the day of Super-8 film and those big banks of lights Dad schlepped around, a “home movie.” Digital media has made movie-making ultra-convenient; but the downside is that most of us are now so trigger-happy that footage piles up faster than we can deal with it.
That’s what happened to me.
Locked away in two cameras, a smart phone and a couple of computers are years of family shenanigans, tracing the growth of my daughters from short pants to eye makeup, my wife’s midlife wise-woman flowering, my own vanishing hair. The task is to make a coherent little family story from all of it — a daisy chain of our finest, craziest moments.
What’s great about this is that it’s so different from what I normally do. Wrangling images, not words, uses a different part of the brain. That, says the British psychologist Mark Croply, is the key to a successful psychological reboot: “Find a task that’s the total opposite to your work that completely absorbs the mind.” Film editing is a rabbit hole you can disappear down indefinitely. You don’t even want to stop for meals.
Fortunately, for one gloriously freed-up day, I don’t have to.
I call up my Mac guy, Mark, just to run over the basics of editing on iMovie. He’s on vacation. Looks like I’m going this alone.
The first part of the morning I spend sorting out technical stuff, like initializing the external drive so that it can talk to my laptop. I’m working at the local public library, in a little nest I’ve created in an oversized chair in the corner, behind the nonfiction stacks. Various devices are plugged in to the wall, and I’ve stashed snacks out of sight of the librarian. It’s not ideal. What you want for a project like this is a private sanctuary — even one of those office spaces you can rent by the day. But we work with the lilypads we have. No excuses.
The raw footage is taking forever to download. Not minutes but hours. (Note to self – and note to you, if you’re planning this same Big Day: make sure you have firewire, or some other fat connector rather than your trusty old, relic-of-another-era USB cable. It’s the difference between filing a bucket with a hose or an eyedropper.)
Now I’m ruing that I let this job ride for so long. Comb your hair regularly and tangles generally come right out. Wait years and you’re dealing with dreadlocks. (A good rule of thumb is to never let your filmed memories pile up for more than a year. That way you can keep the timeline straight. If someone’s singing a Christmas carol you know it’s December — this past December.)
As the rushes dribble in, I hunt online for iMovie tutorials. In a popular one, the narrator has a friendly way about him, but he’s a sketchy teacher. He suggests complicated ways to move your clips around. I dutifully try out each of these, and then he says: “Or you can just drag and drop.” (Note to self: listen to everything before trying anything.)
Noon comes and goes. I’ve started moving material onto the timeline, trying to resist the temptation of watching it. There’s rich ore here. The thought of how much the girls are going to enjoy the movie gives me a little ping of excitement that briefly eclipses the growing sense of dread that I’m not going to get the damn thing done by deadline.
Some elements are easier than expected. Adding a soundtrack is a snap. Some things I thought would be easy — like adjusting the sound levels so they ebb and flow around people’s voices — aren’t.
By 7pm I’m bonking. Not sure whether it’s the ten straight hours of sitting or low blood sugar or too much caffeine. It occurs to me that this Big Day — so cushy relative to the other ones on my long-list — is actually a more extreme test of stamina than I’d realized. The sedentariness gets to you, makes it hard to concentrate.
I try standing. The great film editor Walter Murch stands while he works. He believes editing takes the highest levels of concentration. He likens it to brain surgery. What I’m doing feels more like moving rocks from a riverbed into piles — to be winnowed further until the best-fit shapes are chiseled into exquisite stonework, somewhere down the line. But there is not much “down the line” left. I’ve reached a kind of tipping point. The true nature of a Big Day becomes clear. It is an experiment in how you feel when you keep a promise to yourself versus how you feel when you don’t.
The librarians are now dimming the lights, a signal to start packing up. I treat myself to a high-protein dinner: chicken, spinach, fish rolls. Pretty quickly the strength returns to get me through the second shift.
It’s dangerous to come home in the middle of a Big Day. You will hear, “We’re out of milk can you run to the store?” and “Dad, my math’s due tomorrow and I don’t get how to do it,” even though you have forewarned people that you are not really here — that what they’re seeing in the basement is a ghost with a coffee mug. You will have to ruthlessly say No No No until the requests stop and the house falls quiet again.
The job is actually becoming more fun as the pieces fall into a logical sequence. Turns out the founder of the National Film Board was right: “All things are beautiful if you get them in the right order.”
A continuous thread is the family dog. We’ve got her whole history here, from the day we brought her home as a puppy to her current state as a big sloppy full-grown retriever yoinking pancakes from the counter the moment our backs are turned. That helps with the chronology: as long as Penny is getting bigger, not smaller, as the film moves forward, I’m good. (Of course, a film need not move chronologically; but you have to remember your audience. I doubt the kids would appreciate it if the story jumped around in time, like Memento.) The background music adds a lot. I try to pair thematic sections with songs that were in heavy rotation in our household at the time. It’s starting to look and feel pretty good. Like art, almost.
And here the emotional heft of the project starts to hit me. This is a fantastic choice for a Big Day. There’s nothing trivial about it. The most valuable things we have in our lives are the memories of our families. If the house were burning, this is what we’d run to save. But memories routinely get lost, or distorted beyond recognition, unless we curate them, archive them, review them. I can no longer remember what my father sounded like. There’s no record of his voice. All of our home movies were destroyed when the family garage flooded. And, amazingly, I didn’t even save my answering-machine tapes with Dad’s voice on them. No way am I making that mistake with my own family. We’ll get it all down, gracefully as possible, and store it in the sky.
Around 1am I start craving junk food. That’s the body sensing an emergency (otherwise why the hell am I still awake at this hour?) and trying to store fat. Instead of snacking I take a 90-minute nap — one sleep cycle.
On waking I can feel the screws tightening. I’d actually been futzing with the white balance of the images, until I looked at the clock and realized thirty minutes had gone by, and I immediately abandoned that picayune task. What Big Days do is, they beat the perfectionism out of you. Or rather, they bump it back to the stage where it belongs – the second stage, the presentation stage, not the creation stage. Finishing hammers have no business alongside the cement pourers and the framing crew.
Indeed, all of the fancy ideas I learned from that online iMovie tutorial and had high hopes for deploying – inserting maps, tinkering with the “Ken Burns” effect, “color-matching” footage from two successive shots so the lighting’s not jarringly different – all that goes out the window now.
My plans for a speeded-up middle bit – in the vein of that scene in Marley and Me where a year’s worth of events are condensed into sixty seconds of the family tearing around in a blur … Out the window. Synchronizing the edits to the beat of the music would have been super-cool. Maybe next time.
At one point I’d even entertained going meta – spoofing the whole idea of home movies, in the vein of those funny Tripp and Tyler corporate videos. But there’s no time. Keep it simple. Stay strong.
6 am: I have a movie. It’s not great, but it’s not nothing. Yesterday at this time it was nothing.
What happens next is unexpected. I want to continue. I want to make it great. I’m suddenly remembering tricks like, Put the focus of the action in each frame where the viewer’s eyes were in the last frame. Oh my gosh, how great this could be if I were able to plow on through just one more day…
The Big Day rule says no. I can’t. One Day, done and dusted, now please resume the life already in progress. But maybe this rule is worth re-evaluating? Because, wasn’t part of the point of this to restore the stalled momentum? This is motivation’s twisted logic: we start to care deeply about whatever it is we’re working on the moment it’s about to be snatched away.
Some things I’ve learned:
.* Make sure you have everything you need the night before: equipment charged, materials at hand, gas in the car, a meal in the freezer for the family, reliable internet where you’re going. Etc. Yes, all this technically cuts in to the previous day – but without a bit of forethought the Big Day can easily come a cropper.
.* Get help.
At the 23rd hour in my film project I discovered a basic feature of iMovie. There’s a tab you can click to change the configuration of your clips, so you can see them all laid out in front of you, instead of having them disappear off the margins. Knowing that one trick would have saved me a couple of hours. It’s good to have a mentor at least at the beginning of the process. He or she can show you that, yes, you could eat your soup with a fork, but actually there’s this tool now called a spoon.
But there’s a second reason to have another person involved: to keep your spirits up. Without a live human interface people not only struggle to stay engaged with tasks, we don’t learn as well. The Indian educational scholar Sugata Mitra has described what he calls “the grandmother effect.” When kids have someone standing behind them as they solve problems , someone merely saying cheerlead-y things like, “Wow, I’m impressed, I could never do what you’re doing!” (the way grandmothers do), they scored 30 percent higher on tests. “That improvement obviously isn’t from the instruction,” Mitra said, “it’s from the encouragement.”
.* You’ve got to learn, in filmmaking as in life, to edit as you go, rather than thinking, ‘I’ll sort it all out in post-production.’ No you won’t. Make decisions now. Try to distinguish what’s important from what isn’t, and push the record button during the important stuff and stop pushing it during the inessential stuff. In other words, activate your brain in real time.
Some people call this mindfulness.
.* I’m re-thinking the ‘all nighter’ part of this — at least for me. Twenty years ago, I could have pulled it off. Now I don’t bounce back well. I was getting mighty dizzy by 1am; only the little wolf nap saved me.
. * Deadlines are gold. Without that hard deadline I’d have started messing around trying to edit on people’s blinks or some such misguided esoterica, and that would have occupied me into the night, and doomed the project. Come the dawn, I would have had a big unfinished pile of footage, and back it would have gone into the can, not improved in any demonstrable way, no closer to being ready to be shown. All I could say was I’d painted a couple of frescoes on the wall of a condemned building.
Which, come to think of it, has too often been my usual m.o.
.* Certain tasks are bigger than you can reasonably accomplish in a day. They just are. Especially if you’re starting from scratch, trying first to learn the skills you need to do them. While I got it crudely done in a day, making a home movie was for me more properly a Two-Big-Day job: digging a foundation and then putting a house on top of it.
The question then becomes, When to take the second Big Day — right away, while you’re hot and everything’s still fresh in your mind? That makes the most sense efficiency-wise, but not life-wise. I’m going to recommend sticking to the schedule. The whole point of this was to sneak things into the interstitial spaces of your current schedule, so that nothing feels compromised and the gains feel like magic.
We screened the movie the following night, after dinner. The kids laughed and went ‘aw’ in more or less the right places. They were pleased to see the b roll of the last few years of their life — which made me happy that I was able to deliver it. Reliving fun times brings a spike of pleasure that approaches the pleasure you felt in the moment or even surpasses it, psychologist Sonja Lyubormirsky from UCal Riverside has found. Home movies are one of the great happiness primes.
My first stab at a Big Day convinced me of one thing above all: This works. Taking 24 hours once a month may not be everyone’s lock-springing life hack, but it’s the one I’m going to bet on. I wish I’d discovered it 25 years ago. But then again, I doubt I’d have felt the need to deliberately carve out a discrete bit of precious time, because time was the one thing I did have back then.
Turns out Big Days have another unexpected attribute: they’re infectious. The next morning Jen took me aside and said, in a low voice packed with feeling:
“Can I have a Big Day on Friday? I’d like to tackle my office.”
How could I say no?
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